Monday, July 26, 2010

Ritual in Sita Sings the Blues, Part 4 – The Cosmos

And then some.

It’s now time to conclude my remarks on ritual patterns in Sita Sings the Blues. Somehow.

Let’s hit the reset button and pretend that I never wrote the first essay in this series, the one where I introduce the anthropological conception of ritual and discuss the cosmological opening and closing of the film. What happens if we simply drop that opening sequence (from the opening to 5:15 and from 77:11 to the end) so that the entire film consists of Sita’s narrative, Nina’s narrative, and the Agni Pariksha. Nothing would seem to be lost from either narrative, but the relationship between the two would be reduced to mere juxtaposition and the Agni Pariksha sequence would be poorly motivated. Remember, that sequence originates from Nina’s life, immediately after Dave dumps her, and takes us back in time into Sita’s life at the point where rumors are being spread about her fidelity. How do we explain that connection?

We could, for example, imagine it being accomplished through some kind of time-travel. To do that, however, you would have to set up the time-travel tech by introducing the technology itself and by coming with a reason for it to work in just that way. That is to say, you would have to add something to the film that performs the job that that cosmology now does. So why bother when the cosmology is immanent in the mythological materials?


And just how does the cosmology perform that job? Most fundamentally, it establishes Sita as a divine being – she IS a goddess – and so she can be a model for events in the lives of ordinary women, even a woman such as Nina, who is not Indian and who is living in the 20th and 21st centuries CE. It is not simply that Nina Paley, the film-maker, points out a parallel between events in the life of film-Nina and Sita’s life. No, given the cosmological context, the connection between Sita’s life and Nina’s is much more immediate and intimate than that. That film-Nina’s life should track Sita’s life is now inherent in the structure of the cosmos rather than being a correspondence observed by some external person such as film-maker Nina Paley.

And given that cosmology, it is natural that the Agni Pariksha should be one and the same event in both Nina’s life and Sita’s. Sita established the pattern and Nina is just one of the many women who have participated in that pattern across historical time and geographical space. In that moment of purification and anguish, all are one.

Sounds sorta’ mystical & magical, you say? Yes, it does. But the cosmology is like that. It is all happening, all the time.

Lotsa Stuff

Now let’s consider an implication of this cosmology and of Paley’s use of it in the movie. Look at these screen shots, which I took from a discussion the three commentators had about how Rama and Sita got back to Ayodhya (44:19 – 45:03):

We have, from top to bottom, an ancient horse-drawn cart, a Japanese bullet train, a bird, a carpet, and some kind of flying house. Nor are these the only vehicles mentioned in the commentary. That none of these is a physically plausible mode of transport is, of course, beside the point. What is very much to the point is simply that we have a list of various modes of transport, a list which, by its very oddity, implies all modes of transportation. While Paley could have, in principle, given us an extensive and boring catalogue, she has achieved the same effect with this eclectic list.

The effect of the list is to proclaim: ‘These are things of the world; the world is thus.’ That’s not the matter of ordinary narratives, but it is important to cosmological narratives, which are explicitly about the nature of the world. Nor is this the only such listing in the film. At both the beginning and in the Agni Pariksha Paley parades a bunch of hearts before us; many are medical illustrations while many others are jewelry; some seem to be from greeting cards, and one is from the cover of a matchbook. At another point we get lots of jewelry, that Sita dropped behind her when she was abducted to Lanka. And the Agni Pariksha is a parade of deities, dance forms, fabric designs, and other oddments (see Paley’s remarks in the various interviews listed here).

Paley’s collage technique is thus a way of sampling lots and lots of stuff, of laying out a world before us. Her use of distinctive visual styles does something similar, as does the use of various kinds of music on the soundtrack. This stylistic eclecticism is a way of implying a whole and various world of things, people and events. Paley isn’t simply putting her cleverness on display; rather, she’s using that cleverness to show us the world.


Now consider these screen shots, taken from the commentators’ discussion of Hanuman and his warriors (32:00 – 32:40):

We see monkeys and various monkey-human hybrids (notice the tail on the shadow puppet). The discussion is about Hanuman’s nature – monkey? human? some combination? – and so exists in the context of Hindu mythology and philosophy. But I would be remiss if I did not point out that that particular juncture – between monkeys and men – is one that has been deeply contested in the United States for the past century and more. Thus, while the nature of humankind is not in play in the movie, Paley thus does indicate, if only in passing, that there is an issue here.

But then we see those Rakshasa demons, and the flying eyeballs, and those many-limbed Hindu deities, strange creatures. Those, taken together with everything else that Paley’s put into Sita Sings the Blues, lead me back to a comment I made after having posted my original review: “Now that that’s written and posted, I’ve been wondering whether or not Paley has, in effect, taken the many-worlds variousness of Fantasia and deployed it in service of a single narrative. Looks like it to me.” And it still does.

When I talk of “the many-worlds variousness of Fantasia” I mean that, in Fantasia Disney implied the whole universe. Indeed, one episode, “Rite of Spring,” attempted to depict the whole universe, from micro scale to macro scale; another episode depicted the procession of the seasons (“Nutcracker Suite”); another looked at domestic life (“Pastorale”), and so on through episodes dealing with dreams and magic, art, the demonic, the sacred, and the unformed and still-evolving. And each episode is in a different visual style.

Well, that’s what Paley does in Sita Sings the Blues, and she tells a story, no, two stories, as well. It is an astonishing and wonderful formal and aesthetic achievement to have created a film that combines and interweaves the narrative with the hieratic, the discursive with the symbolic, and the expository with the poetic. But there we have it: Sita Sings the Blues.

* * * * *

A final thought: In all this talk about ritual I’ve said nothing about the intermission that Paley plunked down in the middle of the film. What’s it doing? Well, of course, it’s marking time before the big climax of dumpsville and the Agni Pariksha, allowing the viewer to relax from all the various riches they’ve had to track in the story. Now we’ve got over two minutes with the same background and the familiar characters of the story just parading back and forth. There’s really nothing to figure out (except the audience chatter on the soundtrack) or follow, so just relax.

Precisely because one can just relax, one is in that way drawn into the film as nothing before has done. If the intermission is part of the film, then so is one’s relaxation within it. This serves to strengthen our sympathy for and empathy with Nina when she appears after the intermission and, through that, our immersion in the Agni Pariksha. We’re being set-up, and it works.


  1. .
    Hello once again, William:

    You’ll recall Jean Renoir appearing as Octave in his own movie, La Règle du Jeu? Hitchcock and others do it too, of course, and it’s figurative of a Creator taking incarnation -- or playing a role as avatar -- within creation...

    Well.. with the Ramayana, we can also find the reverse!

    I recall that when I was in India more than thirty years ago, I was told the Ramayana was written by Valmiki, first among poets -- and it was only afterwards, and under the poem's inspiration, that Vishnu did indeed take the form of Rama and come to earth to live out the story already depicted in Valmiki’s epic.

    I just did a quick Google search to see if I could corroborate this memory, and found the following brief statement (wish I had better access to scholarly resources):

    “Rama was born a hundred and fifty years after Sage Valmiki wrote the Ramayan. According to some the Ramayan was written in the Satyayug and Rama was born in the Tretayug.”

    That’s a pretty lovely tribute to the creative artist, no? The god performs what the poet has first envisioned?

    My warm regards to Nina.

  2. That's wonderful, Charles. Seems like we're all mixed up in the same ball of karmic yarn.